Will Piers Morgan help or hurt Murdoch’s case?

By Nicholas Wapshott
August 9, 2011

By Nicholas Wapshott
All opinions expressed are their own.

If Rupert Murdoch manages to keep control of his media empire he might have to thank one of his former employees, Piers Morgan, CNN’s soft spoken, underarm pitching successor to Larry King. The cherub-faced Morgan is at the center of a media storm in Britain right now about whether phone hacking and illegal skullduggery was confined to Murdoch’s papers or rife throughout Fleet Street. If Morgan can successfully out-run the accusations about his complicity in hacking, his old boss Murdoch will remain public enemy number one. If Morgan becomes entangled in the mire, his old boss may feel he’s been let off the hook.

Little is known of Morgan’s tabloid background in the U.S., where he is better known as a judge on America’s Got Talent and as the laid-back host of his celebrity chat show on CNN. The Brits, however, remember him quite differently. He was first the pop music columnist of Murdoch’s Sun who so impressed the top brass that he was elevated at the tender age of 28 to the editorship of the now disgraced and defunct News of the World. Eager to please his master, Morgan pushed the limits of an already crass genre, reaching the height of poor taste when he pictured Countess Spencer, the wife of Princess Diana’s brother, leaving a drug rehab clinic. Even the inured Murdoch was appalled and publicly reprimanded his wayward wunderkind, describing him as “a young man” who “went over the top.”

The incident convinced Morgan he would not attain his ultimate ambition, the editorship of The Sun, Murdoch’s flagship tab selling 4 million copies and reaching 10 million readers daily. So he jumped ship to The Sun’s arch-rival, The Daily Mirror, where as editor he set about trying to prove to his old mentor that he had been seriously underestimated and that the Sun king had made a terrible mistake. The fierce competition between Murdoch’s Sun and the Mirror suddenly became personal, with Morgan each morning trying to out-Murdoch Murdoch in a race to the bottom.

Highlights of this Oedipal tack-fest included: a German-baiting Mirror front page headlined “Achtung! Surrender,” when England was playing Germany at soccer; pictures of Kate Moss snorting coke; and an insider-trading scandal, with Morgan buying £67,000 worth of shares the day before his paper’s business page boosted the company. (Two reporters were found guilty of conspiracy; Morgan, to widespread puzzlement, was eventually cleared by a government inquiry.) When a picture of a soldier urinating on an Iraqi prisoner alongside a story claiming that British troops were involved in their own Abu Ghraib turned out to be a fake, Morgan was fired.

Undeterred, Morgan, alias Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan, formerly known as Piers Stefan O’Meara, began to remake himself all over again. He wrote name-dropping books about his time at the top and a series of magazine and television interviews with big names, including prime minister Gordon Brown, who teared up when talking about his son’s illness. In 2008, Morgan convinced Donald Trump he had the right stuff to win Celebrity Apprentice. And in 2010 he succeeded the veteran Larry King at CNN.

As a former Murdoch editor and an editor of the Mirror, reporters investigating the hacking scandal have inevitably questioned Morgan’s role in the practice. An attempt by the Conservative MP Louise Mensch to broaden the scandal beyond the Murdochs in the Commons inquisition of the Murdochs by suggesting that Morgan had provided a how-to guide to phone hacking led eventually to a groveling apology from her. But Morgan admits listening to intercepted phone messages without asking too closely where they came from, including an anguished plea by Paul McCartney to Heather Mills to return to him, in which the former Beatle sang a couple of bars from “We Can Work It Out.” (This story has everything.) Morgan is currently resisting calls from British lawmakers to return to Britain to answer questions about his knowledge of hacking at The Sun, The News of the World, and the Mirror.

Whether Morgan was culpable is beside the point. The main accusation against Murdoch does not depend on whether he knew or did not ask about who was tapping whom at his papers, though considering the pride he takes in his close involvement in everything to do with News Corp’s hard copy properties, it is hard not to conclude that he was at best guilty of willful ignorance and was disingenuous when he told the Commons he did not have time to pay attention to his wayward employees. Where did he imagine the scoops based on private phone messages were coming from? Why did he not ask?

No, the chief charge against Murdoch is that over the course of thirty or more years he encouraged and profited from what amounted to a protection racket in which celebrities and politicians fell in with his wishes in order to prevent their private lives and personal peccadilloes from being probed by his private detectives and splashed across the front pages of his papers. Morgan’s Fleet Street years confirm that that was indeed the ethos that Murdoch inspired and encouraged and that those who could not beat him at that sinister game were obliged to follow suit.

 

Nicholas Wapshott is a former senior editor of The Times, London. His “Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics” is published by W.W.Norton in October. An extract may be found at: https://sites.google.com/site/wapshottkeyneshayek/

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Morgan can try and pin it all on Murdoch but you can bet Rupert will find a way to get his payback.

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